ABC Entertainment Chairman Ted Harbert resigned Tuesday, ending 20 years at the network where he had spent his entire career.
The resignation is the most significant executive shift at the network since it was acquired by Walt Disney Co. in February. It leaves in charge a relatively inexperienced network head, Jamie Tarses, 32, who became president of ABC Entertainment last summer amid a slide in prime-time ratings.
In the last year, ABC has fallen from first place to third in the ratings, trailing NBC and CBS in overall viewing.
Harbert, 41, met with ABC Inc. President Robert Iger on Monday and notified his staff Tuesday morning that he'd officially be gone in mid-February, though he will probably leave sooner.
The timing took Hollywood by surprise, coming midway through the television season and only six months after his promotion to chairman--in what was widely regarded as a management transition bungled by Disney.
Sources say a new contract signed by Harbert at the time gave him the option to exit this month with a payday valued at more than $7 million. (Since part of the value is in stock options, the estimate fluctuates based on Disney share prices.)
Harbert stressed that the decision was his own, unrelated to the prime-time slide.
"This is just 100% 'It's time for me to go do something else,' " he said. "I've got to go challenge myself, to open up a new learning curve."
Harbert said he hasn't decided whether he will join a studio or follow several other network chiefs by linking up with an independent production company or starting one from scratch.
Some Hollywood sources say Harbert's departure may have been accelerated by the hands-on management style of Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, who insiders say has become more involved in day-to-day decisions at the network. They say since the merger, many decisions that had been handled by the entertainment head were now being run up the ladder to Iger and even Eisner. Friends of the executive also note that his new duties and the revised structure made him primarily an administrator and moved him farther away from hands-on involvement in programming.
"Sure, it's different working for Disney than it is working for Capital Cities," Harbert said. "This, in my view, is a much bigger decision than that. I can work for anybody."
Harbert, who joined the network just out of college in 1977, has run the entertainment division for four years and worked at the network under five presidents and four owners, earning him the reputation of a survivor.
Harbert worked in college at a Boston radio station before joining ABC in 1977, working through, as one associate put it, "every job at the network."
And under Harbert's stewardship, ABC finished the season No. 1 in prime time two years ago--its first win in the ratings since the late 1970s.
His resignation will focus the spotlight on Tarses, the former NBC development executive whose primary experience has been shaping shows such as "Friends" and "Frasier." At ABC, Tarses has concentrated on bringing in needed hits while Harbert focused on dealing with advertisers, affiliates and the media.
Tarses will not assume the title of chairman, leaving open the possibility that Iger will appoint a successor to Harbert. Geraldine Laybourne, the new head of Disney/ABC's cable operations and former Nickelodeon head, has been rumored for months to be a favorite candidate for the job despite her lack of prime-time experience.
Industry sources say Tarses will at the least need to find a strong No. 2 executive to help her manage the added responsibilities. ABC is in the midst of ordering new-series pilots for next season and will present new programs for midseason to TV critics from around the country today and Thursday. Harbert will participate in those presentations.
The seeds for Harbert's exit were planted last February, when top management at the network and at Disney contacted Tarses--then at NBC--about joining ABC. Harbert wasn't consulted and learned of the situation when an NBC executive called to warn that Tarses was under contract.
There were also reports at the time that Eisner was talking with Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the owners of an independent production company, about running the network with Tarses. Disney was apparently worried that Tarses lacked the experience to do Harbert's job alone.
The moves undermined Harbert's credibility, although he was ultimately convinced to stay on in an elevated capacity in what was known as "an arranged marriage."
ABC executives went to great lengths to reinforce the partnership, having the team take the stage to address reporters last July to the tune of the Turtles' song "So Happy Together." But insiders say the job simply wasn't big enough for both of them, and the circumstances surrounding their beginnings strained relations from the start.
Most Hollywood executives say Harbert may not have relished taking the heat for the expected further decline in the ratings. Most predict that ABC's ratings will continue to fall over the next 18 months. ABC has several aging hits, and Harbert suffered another blow when he passed over the Carsey-Werner Co.'s "3rd Rock From the Sun," which on NBC became the only new hit of the season.
Yet if Harbert accepts a degree of blame for losing "3rd Rock," supporters can cite such successes during his tenure as the launch of the drama "NYPD Blue" in the face of public protests and advertiser resistance.
"I've never known ABC without him being there. It's going to be weird," said Alan Berger, executive vice president of International Creative Management.